India-Vietnam

Strategic entente

Print edition : November 28, 2014

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung with Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the ceremonial reception accorded to him at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on October 28. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

This 2012 photograph shows CNOOC 981, the first deep-water drilling rig developed in China, erected 320 km south-east of Hong Kong in the South China Sea. In May this year, China and Vietnam came close to a conflict over the oil rig , placed in waters claimed by both countries . Photo: Xinhua, Jin Liangkuai, File/AP

A U.S. Navy SH-60 Seahawk prepares to land on the deck of the nuclear-powered USS George Washington off the southern coast of Vietnam in the South China Sea, a 2012 photograph. The U.S. Navy is preparing to return to the South China Sea in a big way. Photo: Na Son Nguyen/AP

India makes an earnest effort to increase its footprint in Vietnam and give new life to its “Look East” policy during the recent visit of the Vietnamese Prime Minister.

THE two-day official visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to India in the last week of October came within weeks of President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi. Before the President’s visit, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj was also in Hanoi. In fact, for the past couple of years, there have been frequent exchanges of high-level visits. The focus of the discussions during the visits has been on further strengthening the strategic and economic relations between the two countries, which have been growing stronger since the mid-1970s. Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Vietnam in mid-September coincided with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to India.

India and Vietnam have had good relations since the 1950s, when the legendary Ho Chi Minh was the leader of Communist North Vietnam. During the liberation war with France and later on with the United States, India’s overall sympathies were with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle then waged by the Vietnamese. After the formal reunification of the country in 1975, bilateral ties became stronger. In 1979, when a brief border war broke out between China and Vietnam, the Indian External Affairs Minister at the time, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had cut short a visit to China in order to register India’s sympathy with the Vietnamese.

Although China’s military and political assistance to Vietnam played a crucial role in the historic war the Vietnamese waged against the U.S., the two sides soon drifted apart over a host of issues. The Chinese side objected to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of Beijing’s ally, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot, from power. Both sides have failed to come to terms with past history. Vietnam, in medieval times, was treated as a vassal state by the imperial court in Beijing. All the same, China today is the most important economic partner of Vietnam and has in recent decades invested heavily in the Vietnamese economy. In comparison, the economic ties that Vietnam has with India are paltry. India now wants to increase its footprint in Vietnam as it tries to give new life to its “Look East” policy. The new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has said that it wants to transform the policy into an “Act East” policy. The previous Congress-led government actively promotedg this policy as part of its plans to counter the growing Chinese economic and political influence in South-East Asia.

Many observers, in fact, were of the view that Indian policies are somewhat in sync with the policies of the U.S. aimed at isolating and encircling China. The Obama administration’s “pivot to the East” is a manifestation of this policy. The U.S., which normalised relations with Vietnam only in 1995, has now decided to strengthen its military and strategic ties with the country. In the first week of October, the Obama administration announced that it was partially lifting the ban on the sales of lethal weaponry to Vietnam, for “maritime security purposes”. The ban on the sale of non-lethal arms was lifted in 2006. In 2013, President Barack Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang agreed to upgrade their relations to the status of a “comprehensive partnership”. During the visit of the Vietnamese President to the U.S. that year, the two countries pledged to cooperate on a wide range of issues, including defence and energy.

Last December, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Vietnam, announced that the U.S. would provide Vietnam $18 million to upgrade its defence capabilities, which included purchasing five patrol boats for the Vietnamese Coast Guard. The U.S. is also casting covetous glances at the strategically located Cam Ranh Bay military base in the south of the country. A senior American naval officer recently said that the U.S. Navy was preparing to return to the South China Sea in a big way. U.S. Navy ships are now allowed to berth there. The Vietnamese want to commercially exploit the Cam Ranh Bay airport and harbour. The Americans had to vacate the base after their military defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese. The Russians used the Cam Ranh base after the withdrawal of the Americans but chose to leave after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vietnam, however, has assured China that it would not allow permanent basing facilities for the U.S.

Conflicting signals

But the Vietnamese leadership has been sending conflicting signals. In May this year, Vietnam signed the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), an American-sponsored anti-terrorism initiative that is viewed with suspicion by both Beijing and Moscow. Until recently, Hanoi along with Beijing was strongly protesting against the PSI, saying that it violated international law.

During the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s visit to New Delhi, it was announced that India would provide four patrol boats for the Vietnamese Navy and train 500 Vietnamese sailors “in comprehensive underwater combat warfare”. Vietnam is emerging as a key player in the U.S.’ plans to prop up regional counterweights to China. The U.S. has signed a key security pact with the Philippines that allows it to use once again the military bases in the country. Japan has been a staunch military ally of the U.S. for long. Under the new right-wing government of Shinzo Abe, Japan has escalated its territorial dispute with China.

Beijing may have reasons to suspect that Washington and New Delhi are acting in tandem in the region. Indian officials say that they are trying to implement their own agenda of strengthening economic, political and strategic linkages with key countries in the region such as Vietnam and Myanmar. China has made its displeasure clear on India’s proposed sale of patrol boats to Vietnam and the prospecting by Indian oil companies in the disputed waters. At the same time, it is being pointed out that China has no compunctions about providing military help to Pakistan and, for that matter, investing in the disputed areas of Kashmir. China is building a rail and road network in Gilgit in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. The talk about India selling the anti-ship supersonic Cruise missile “Brahmos” to Vietnam once again surfaced during Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit. Vietnam has been openly asking for weapons to strengthen its naval capabilities. The Russians, who had a big hand in producing the potent missile, may now be amenable to the sale despite the knowledge that Beijing, once again a close ally, will not be happy. Russia itself has multi-billion arms sales contracts with Vietnam; it has already sold four Kilo Class submarines. The Brahmos missiles may soon figure in India’s defence-related exports to Vietnam. Such a sale, however, may have repercussions for Sino-Indian relations. The Indian side is aware of this and this could be the reason why New Delhi is taking its time.

Chinese and Vietnamese naval patrol boats have been engaged in aggressive patrolling in the waters around the disputed islands in the South China Sea. China has objected to Vietnam giving exploration rights to India’s ONGC Videsh in the disputed waters. In May this year, China and Vietnam came quite close to a conflict after China placed an oil rig in waters just off the disputed Paracel islands. This event had considerably raised tensions. Vietnam considers the hydrocarbon blocks where the ONGC has been drilling for oil well within its special maritime economic zone.

Addressing the media along with his Vietnamese counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India’s “defence cooperation with Vietnam is among our most important”. He told the media that his government would quickly operationalise the $100 million credit that India had offered to Vietnam and help the country acquire new naval vessels and other military equipment. In a joint statement, the two sides called for peaceful resolution of the maritime disputes in the region. Both sides “agreed that freedom of navigation and overflights in the East Sea/South China Sea should not be impeded and called on the parties concerned to exercise restraint”. The East Sea is the name Vietnam prefers to use for the South China Sea. Beijing has not been taking a benign view of the stress being put on “freedom of navigation” by the West and its allies.

Beijing claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea as its own and has stated repeatedly that it considers the area as a “matter of core concern”, placing it on a par with the Tibet and Taiwan issues. Other countries besides Vietnam have also claimed sovereignty over areas in the South China Sea. They include the Philippines and Malaysia. The Chinese official position is that it is willing to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the dispute with the other countries involved through the auspices of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or through direct talks with the governments concerned.

The U.S. has been encouraging countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam to unilaterally stake their claims and internationalise the dispute involving a few rocky outcrops jutting out of the South China Sea. China has also offered to go in for joint exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon deposits with the countries with which it has territorial disputes. Reacting to the agreement between India and Vietnam to explore for oil and gas in new blocks, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Beijing had no objection as long as it was carried out in waters that are not disputed. He, however, stated that if the joint exploration harmed China’s sovereignty and interests, then his government would “resolutely oppose it”. He went on to add that “China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and its surrounding waters”.

During Nguyen Tan Dung’s visit, India offered an additional credit of $300 million to help the country “diversify its industry and economic linkages”. Despite the regional rivalries, India and Vietnam have joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The bank is being positioned as a rival to the World Bank. The U.S. has been lobbying in various Asian capitals against the bank. But despite the best efforts of the Obama administration, 21 Asian countries, big and small, have signed up as its founding members. The notable exceptions are the U.S.’ foremost allies in the region—Australia, Japan and South Korea. Indonesia, which has wide-ranging trade ties with China, is expected to sign up soon.

China is going to put in $50 billion to kickstart the bank. The bank’s main focus will be on infrastructure development in the least developed areas of the region. The Asian Development Bank has calculated that the region needs $8 trillion for infrastructure development by 2020. The unity shown by Asian countries in making the AIIB a reality bodes well for the peaceful development of the Asian continent.

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